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As the fans filed into The Spectrum in Philadelphia Sunday night for the Flyers' game with the Islanders, they were exposed, as are fans at every Flyers home game, to a pugilistic atmosphere. Outside, on the north side of the arena, an 8½-foot statue of Rocky Balboa, a prop from the movie Rocky III, stands with its bronze arms raised in a boxer's gesture of triumph. Inside, 35 minutes before faceoff, the Flyers took the ice for warmups to the driving beat and ominous lyrics of the Rocky III theme song, Eye of the Tiger, by Survivor:
Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past,
You must fight just to keep them alive.
The song and statue would seem to be appropriate trappings for a team that for the past 11 brawl-filled seasons has led the NHL in penalty minutes and fought its way into the Stanley Cup finals in four of those years. (Philadelphia won the Cup in 1974 and '75 and was runner-up in '76 and '80.) This season, however, as the Flyers have pulled away in the Patrick Division race—after Sunday's 2-0 win over the second-place Islanders, Philadelphia enjoyed a 14-point lead and had a league-high 89 points—they have employed a new style, which may come as a surprise to those who knew and loathed them as the Broad Street Bullies.
"We're the Broad Street Ballet now," says Philadelphia General Manager Keith Allen, only half in jest. In recent years, such proclamations meant merely an increase in press releases, not a reduction in penalty minutes. But in 1982-83 the shift from fighting to skating is demonstrably and intriguingly real. Through 63 games, the Flyers had accumulated 1,121 minutes in penalties. At the same juncture in 1981-82, they had been hit with 1,986 minutes.
"Credit Bob McCammon," says Allen of the coach he once hired and fired in a span of 6½ months and whom he has now entrusted with recasting the franchise. "In the past we just paid lip service to cutting down penalties. Bob showed us how much they were hurting us, and he's the first guy to come in here and make the players respond."
McCammon, then 37, took over behind the Flyer bench in July 1978 after the legendary Fred Shero left to become coach and general manager of the Rangers. "Keith told me Freddie had beer easy on the players, so I decided to be easy on them, too," says McCammon "That was my first mistake." McCammon never gained full control of that veteran team, and the players didn't exactly overwhelm him with respect. Once Defenseman Andre Dupont flashed his two Stanley Cup rings under McCammon's nose and said, "How many of these have you won?"
Allen fired McCammon in January 1979, replacing him with tough-talking cigar-chomping Pat Quinn. But instead of searching for another NHL coaching job, McCammon asked to return to the Maine Mariners, Philadelphia's American Hockey League affiliate, which he'd coached before moving up to the Flyers. Then, late last season, with Philly mired in third place in the Patrick Division and headed for a league-record 102 power-play goals allowed—goals made possible largely by the Flyers' penchant for taking stupid penalties—Allen fired Quinn and rehired McCammon.
McCammon made a reduction in penalty minutes and improved penalty killing his top priorities. Initially he tried fining players who took bad penalties. While that tactic got a lot of publicity, he now admits it didn't work. "Money doesn't motivate a pro hockey player as much as you think it does," says McCammon. "So this season I started sitting guys down. That worked. Pride will motivate these guys." So will splinters.
Penalty-prone players like Paul Holmgren, Behn Wilson and Glen Cochrane were among those missing shifts early in the season for taking unnecessary penalties. McCammon says he was especially irked when his players were penalized "in the neutral or offensive zones where a goal against isn't directly at stake and when they interfere with a guy or trip or hook him because they're too lazy to outskate him. But don't get the wrong idea. Hockey's a tough game, and we're still a tough team." Or, as Jimmy Watson, a Philadelphia defenseman from 1971-72 through '81-82 and now a team scout, says, "We'll still answer the bell."